Sailing unchartered territory – The Voyage game

Jeffrey Fletcher, senior education officer at the Australian National Maritime Museum, talks about using a game for learning about convicts - The Voyage Game.

An image of the voyage game
Image: The voyage game

A different learning model for teaching a convicts unit

The learning task:

The year is 1830. You are the Surgeon Superintendent aboard a convict vessel transporting its human cargo from Britain to the far reaches of the known world – Van Diemen’s Land. You are charged with delivering several hundred convicts to the colony in good health and in the shortest time possible, with minimum loss of life. This is the way to make money and further your reputation and position. Players must make decisions, solve problems and deal with conflicts on a perilous journey across the globe. Are you up to the task?

This is the premise of The Voyage – a free online game available on the Australian National Maritime Museum’s website. The scenarios, although invented, are based on approximately 10,000 real convict and voyage records. Students role-play the ship’s Surgeon Superintendent, who was responsible for the delivery of convicts on time, alive and in good health. This was a pathway to future success – doing well on these voyages enhanced a surgeon’s prospects in both Britain and the colonies.

Students must decide on what supplies they will take, how they will manage the convicts and make decisions on pop-up scenarios that can alter the direction the game takes, and the ultimate result. A series of gauges keep players informed as to status of key areas such as supplies, morale and health aboard ship.

When I was first introduced to the concept for The Voyage, my immediate thoughts turned to how accurate it would need to be for teachers to adopt it as a legitimate educational tool and how the graphics, humour and competitive pathway structure would need to pass the ever-discerning and somewhat punishing scrutiny of students. The Voyage needed to engage a particular audience for a specific purpose, yet effectively serve two masters – the students who would play it and the teachers who would implement it. This game needed to be good. What gave me confidence for this project was the quality of our partners – Dr Hamish Maxwell Stewart, an amazingly knowledgeable and engaging history professor from the University of Tasmania and the diverse and vibrant visual storytelling of ROAR films and Screen Australia.

Why choose a game?

Games in education have been around a long time, from board games to electronic games and now digital games online. Benefits include improving skills in:

* group dynamics

* literacy and numeracy

* decision-making

* critical thinking

* strategy

* empathy

* engagement with the curriculum.

Today, virtual gaming offers a plethora of learning opportunities through online playing, sharing, collaborating, challenging, investigating and resourcing. Much has been written on the effectiveness of games-based learning and research continues but, as educators, the key question is ‘How do we maximise the value of games for students through holistic learning strategies that support both investigative and serendipitous learning?’

Indeed, as a museum, placing our interpretation and learning strategies in a gaming format was quite a leap, not dissimilar, I suspect, to many teachers giving over valuable lesson time to a game. However, playing games in ‘learning time’ is different to ‘leisure time’ and is certainly nothing to be feared. Like any situation, we learn from our mistakes, so playing multiple times with a challenge to improve the end result is an intrinsic motivation for players. However, when introducing any new learning tool – digital or not – into a structured pedagogy, we must make discerning choices. Richard Halverson (2005) posits the need for teachers to re-examine the core principles of learning in new environments:

… Gee (2003) argues that the compelling nature of video game participation is in part due to the underlying social, cognitive, and developmental learning principles around which game designers build successful games … When school leaders and teachers begin to appreciate the compelling nature of gameplay and the powerful learning principles embedded in games as positives, they then can consider how games might inspire alternative approaches to learning.

Real stories – authentic learning

We based the game on voyages to Hobart as it was an incredibly important and infamous penal colony, and because, as a national museum, we endeavour to tell stories from every corner of our country. Being grounded in real stories brings an intrinsic authenticity to the project, and the game is enjoyable to play.

An image of catching rats in the voyage game
Image: Catching rats in the Voyage game

A series of break-out games use humour and anachronisms to advantage, such as ‘shooting’ as many rats as you can to prevent the spread of disease and infestation of food. In fact, the whole game uses humour as a pathway to engagement – a most difficult thing to do, particularly across a spread of age groups, as The Voyage straddles the history curriculum for Years 5 and 9 of the Australian curriculum.

Some Year 4 classes have also found it useful as part of the Explorers unit. There are also applied competencies for English, visual arts, science, design and technology, maths and geography, so it is most suitable as a core element in an integrated primary school program and has cross-curriculum, literacy, numeracy and critical thinking benefits for high school students.

The game is also eminently relevant for those studying computing, particularly game mechanics. During our trials with different aged school groups we asked them to think of it in terms of an alternative way to approach their school work rather than a game made purely for entertainment. It seemed to resonate with students as a viable learning approach, some choosing to play it solo and others to collaborate in groups. Teachers can introduce the game in a way that suits the dynamics of their particular class.

The Voyage initiative—including the focus, design and introduction of the game into the museum – reflects interdisciplinary conversations relating to the potential relationship between digital innovations, game play, young people, education, history and the contemporary museums. Rowan, L., Townend, G. & Beavis, C. (2016)

We were also very aware of making the game as accessible to as many students and school digital systems as possible. Creating it in HTML 5 with capability across different devices was something that was important to its central functionality. In our trials, some students preferred using their phone, others tablets and others laptops, although the popular choice appears to have been tablets. The project also needed to be serviceable for teachers as an overall package, so the construction and playability needed to synchronise with usage and resourcing.

As a museum, we feel that our education remit and commitment does not stop at exhibitions, events and programs. It is important that resources from our Collection, expertise and associates are made available to teachers and students for use in the classroom to augment and support their museum experience.

We have created a first tier of resources which will be regularly populated with additional material. These include an image gallery of associated documents and artefacts from the Australian National Maritime Collection, such as a pardon for a convict from Hobart and a 19th century medicine chest, similar to those used on such voyages.

Accompanying these are interviews with the game developers on how they put the game together, historians on convict voyages and descendants, including the experience of children, as well as two short films that explore the impact of the European presence on Indigenous people.

There are also suggested classroom activities for secondary and primary schools, web links to other resources and we will shortly be adding an open-ended storytelling video and an iTunesU course – all specifically designed to assist teachers in embedding The Voyage into a well-resourced and sequenced unit of work. This year, we also hope to run a series of ‘meet the curator’ workshops where students can talk to an expert in the field and learn more about these fascinating, compelling and important voyages.

Post script

To date, over 125,000 people have played the game in Australia. We are also proud to have received a 2016 Museums and Galleries National Award (MAGNA) for The Voyage in the Interpretation, Learning and Audience Engagement category and an Australian Teachers of Media (ATOM) award in the Educational Game category. The London Grid for Learning has also made the game available to London schools. The game and associated materials also appear on ABC Education.

The Voyage Game and resources are available free.

References and further reading

ABC 2016, ‘Convict voyages’, ABC Education, accessed 28 February 2017.

Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney, accessed 28 February 2017.

Australian National Maritime Museum 2016, ‘European impact’, YouTube, accessed 28 February 2017.

Australian National Maritime Museum 2015, The historian – The Voyage, YouTube, accessed 28 February 2017.

Gee, J. 2003, Learning and Identity: What does it mean to be a half-elf? What video games have to teach us about language and literacy, Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Halverson, R. 2005, ‘What can K-12 school leaders learn from video games and gaming?’, Innovate: Journal of Online Education, vol. 1, no. 6, accessed 28 February 2017.

Rowan, L., Townsend, G. & Beavis, C. 2016, ‘Museums, games, and historical imagination: student responses to a games-based experience at the Australian National Maritime Museum’, Digital Culture and Education, vol. 8.

Keywords: History K-6, convicts, penal transportation,

How to cite this article: Fletcher, J. 2017, 'Sailing uncharted territory - the voyage game', Scan 36(1), pp. 20-25

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